Yang Sing Restaurant, Manchester.
14 March 2019.
Ant and Dec, Yorkshire pudding and Postman Pat? When Yi Di, a young Chinese woman, newly arrived in England, encounters any local references with which she is unfamiliar she scribbles them down in a note-book, to be looked up later. Mei Lan can remember how she and her Leeds classmates sang On Ilkley Moor bah ta’t at school. Bob saves his singing voice for Elland Road.
From Shore To Shore‘s stories are rooted within Yorkshire’s Chinese communities. They flow back and forward through time, as well as across continents. Told through a mix of English, Mandarin and Cantonese with a small splash of Yorkshire dialect, the narratives emphasise the diversity of the Chinese community and the reach of its diaspora. “So many different places we come from. So many different places to call home“.
Crisscrossed by journeys, both physical, and personal, the play focuses on three main characters. Successful restaurant owner Cheung Wing recalls how as a child he fled from the Japanese occupation of China, and eventually ended up making a new life in Leeds. Mei Lan remembers her Yorkshire childhood, balancing the demands of school with evenings spent working in her parents’ takeaway. While Yi Di finds herself leaving the strict demands of her parents in China behind, to study for a PhD in Leeds.
Inspired by real life interviews, writers Mary Cooper and MW Sun, have created stories that feel grittily authentic. China’s turbulent recent history leaves its mark, with people displaced by conflict and poverty, scarred by the Cultural Revolution or haunted by what happened in Tiananmen Square. However characters also find themselves struggling with equally traumatic events at a domestic level, as they deal with racism, domestic violence and gambling addiction.
Women face added pressures – unable to access education in the early years of the 20th century, and often unwanted, or a resented second choice under the one child policy. China’s recent economic miracle may offer women new opportunities, but old values persist. After a failed attempt to encourage her daughter to commit to getting married, Yi Di’s mother sighs that, “now there are three sexes: men, women, and women with PhDs”.
Even as an old man, Cheung Wing can still hear his mother’s voice telling him “don’t let go of my hand“, and the play explores the strong connection characters feel to culture, traditions and the idea of motherland. That pull is depicted as a source of sustenance, but also tension – the difficulties of balancing duty to family with the need to be yourself, being told what to think and thinking your own thoughts, and the temptation to forget rather than remember. Identity comes with many layers, each to be carefully navigated.
Food features regularly in memories. A warming bowl of soup inspires feelings of hope in a desperate young boy. A caring neighbour shares a steamed bun. Those associations with comfort and belonging are carried through into the choice of venue.
Staged in-the-round, within Manchester’s Yang Sing restaurant, the audience is seated at tables laid out ready for a meal. Soup is served on arrival, and after the show people share a selection of Chinese dishes. The performance itself is equally nourishing – heart-warming and deeply satisfying.
As the elderly Cheung Wing, Ozzie Yue is impressive, a calm and steady central focus around which everything else seems to revolve. The rest of the company busily, and effortlessly, switch between a range of roles. Characters are quickly and convincingly brought to life as the three seemingly disparate narrative strands start to eventually come together.
Michelle Yim (Mei Lan) and Luna Dai (Yi Di) are especially strong as the two main female characters. Yim brings a fiery passion to the role of Mei Lan, the takeaway owner who finds the strength and focus to emerge from her troubled childhood, while Dai imparts an engaging optimism to the role of Yi Di, a successful young woman determined to write her own rules.
Despite the relatively small cast and the tight staging area, director David K S Tse cleverly creates moments of hustle and bustle as well as quieter reflective sections. There are some striking scenes involving collective singing and synchronised movement, and an effective use of ‘off stage’ voices to echo phrases and interject.
Douglas Kuhrt’s lighting design transforms the space and helps to clearly signal shifts in time and mood, bathing the performers in a warm golden glow or plunging them into a blanket of stark blue, while Nicola Chang’s music adds subtle depth to events.
Back in northern China, Yi Di’s mother had never heard of Leeds before her daughter chose to study there. From a map all she can glean is that it is surrounded by hills and, compared to Chinese cities, is very small. From Shore To Shore takes a handful of the many stories hidden deep within that dot on a map and serves them up warmly across a restaurant table, creating something vibrant, expansive and life-affirming.
After performances at the Yang Sing Restaurant, Manchester, From Shore to Shore then tours to Angel Restaurant, Liverpool (19-20 March); Wong’s Kitchen at Lancaster University, The Dukes Theatre and The Hothouse in Morecambe (21-24 March); Palace Garden, Newcastle (26-30 March) and the Chung Ying Cantonese and Chinese Community Centre in Birmingham (2-6 April).
Images by Lee Baxter